Thanksgivng Haitian style: a shopping list


Yesterday, promising a series of posts this week about the difficulties Sara and I face trying to celebrate Thanksgiving from Port-au-Prince, I outlined what I called the “oven-related challenges” that could jeopardize our thankful feasting this Thursday.

Today, however, shopping-related issues take center stage—the consumer-driven hazards that could take down even the most well-intended and tradition-centered of holiday celebrations.  In fact, it may be that the more one tries to model any Thanksgiving feast in Haiti on the one Grandma would have catered, the larger the obstacles threatening it loom.

So, buyer beware.

Wisely, Sara and I anticipated some of these issues and brought back from the US several Thanksgiving menu items we thought might be needed—imagined we wouldn’t find here, even in the expat-oriented grocery stores in Petion-ville. 

But as you might expect (those of you who know my pathetic track record when it comes to poor packing), I anticipated incorrectly—finding here in Haiti what I did bring back but not bringing what I didn’t find.  Just my bad Thanksgiving luck!

Except for canned pumpkin—that is. 

Here I hit the pie-filling nail on its not-so-proverbial-pie-filling head.  I swear there’s not an ounce of Libby’s to be had on the whole of this damn island—cherry pie filling, yes—canned yams, yes—canned pumpkin in time for Thanksgiving pie-baking—no sir—none of it—anywhere.  And believe me, I have looked. 

But we need not worry.   I may not have a thermostatically controllable oven to bake the pie in, but I have a full 29 ounce can of “America’s Favorite Pumpkin” to put in it.

Now about the celery—

Here I should mention having a bit of scare yesterday morning trying to find this vegetable, almost as essential to stuffing as sage itself.  Standing in Giant Market (right here in Petion-ville), I came so close to a celery-induced heart attack, I was imagining, “What would Jesus do?”  What would the son of God himself (assuming he were a turkey-stuffing kind of carpenter) use in his stuffing were the stalks of stringy stuff not available?  If he turned water into wine, could he turn carrots into celery?

But, again, you need not fear, as Saint Sara herself performed the miracle, finally finding what she called a “not very robust” celery (but a celery-looking substance nonetheless) in the grocery store near her office. 

Catastrophe averted.  We are that much closer to a celery-ed stuffing inside our bird that’s to be roasted at a temperature the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will themselves determine.

Then there’s the chicken broth—

Yesterday Sara sent me to the super market for some cans of it, among other things.   Actually, Giant carried the item in both the Swanson and Campbell’s variety—the Swanson, carton-ed with no added MSG and the Campbell’s, canned with all the blood-pressure-raising MSG one would ever want.  And being a health-conscious, not-wanting-to-consume-excessive-amounts-of-salt American, I selected the broth without MSG.  In fact, I tried to check out with three cartons of the stuff, since Thanksgiving dinner calls for broth in both the gravy and as a moistening agent in any well-celery-ed stuffing.

Here’s the hitch.  Though the store stocked the Swanson’s (over-stocked it, in fact)—they wouldn’t sell it to me.  And, if sheer quantity were any indication, wouldn’t sell to anybody, for that matter.  They couldn’ t figure out the price.  So, when, after thirty minutes of trying to determine one, no member of the sales or management staff could still settle on the number of Gourde to make me pay, I suggested they charge me anything. 

“Over-charge me,” I even offered—a concept they seemed not to grasp—though they seem to get it well enough when selling products on the street and doubling the price when any non-Haitian tries to buy.

But undeterred and unwilling to waste any more of my time-is-money American minutes, I gave up, bought the cans of Campbell’s, and headed home, risking ill-health all the way.

So the bottom line is this— the shopping obstacles, though they were multiple and at times bizarre, did not obstruct in any hugely significant way.  These were more imagined obstacles than obstacles of real substance—

So Saint Sara, the wise and proper packer, was (as she is in all things) probably right about this, as well–

—Since the anticipated shopping obstacle was, like the celery itself . . .

. . . “not a very robust” obstacle after all.

Figuring out Thanksgiving from Port-au-Prince


In honor of the upcoming holiday, I’ve decided to share, over the next several days, a few of the challenges we’re facing trying to prepare Thanksgiving dinner from Haiti.  So stay tuned all week for the sometimes amusing, sometimes maddening, sometimes mind-numbing complications that inevitably arise when celebrating this most American of holidays in the least American of places.

Today I give you the oven-related challenges.

I told Sara when we were looking for a house here in Haiti, that I simply had to have an oven.  Neither of the two homes we had in Vietnam had anything other than a cook top in the kitchen, which bothered me to no end, since I like to bake—cookies, cakes, biscuits, pies, muffins.  The only thing I like more than making them is eating them, but that’s another post for another day.

 So Sara did what any Tollhouse-cookie-loving-partner would do.  She got us an oven—a real honest-to-goodness gas oven—minus the thermostat.

 I kid you not.  There’s no way to set any specific temperature on this most essential of kitchen appliances, any temperature either Fahrenheit or Celsius.

 Now, I love Sara more than anything, even more than my daily dose of cake and cookies, and those of you who know my inclination toward carb-consumption, know that’s saying quite a bit.  But sometimes she misses the most obvious of details.

 “Oh, that’s not that important.  You’ll figure that out.”

 Twelve attempts and twelve burnt batches of cookies later, I’m still figuring. 

 Which brings me to the matter of needing an oven this week, a temperature controlled oven, I might add.   In America we can’t celebrate Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie.  It’s the most Thanksgiving of Thanksgiving desserts—even when celebrating from here in Port-au-Prince—especially when celebrating from any far-away, cholera-sickened, earthquake-toppled part of the planet!

 A pumpkin pie likes to bake for the first 15 minutes at 425 degrees Fahrenheit and the final 45 to 50 minutes at 350, temperatures too precise even for the oven thermometer I brought back from the US.  It only seems to get me in the ballpark of a particular temperature, give or take 100 degrees. 

 But what about the turkey Sara plans to roast, what about the thermostatic requirements of the old Butterball?

 Oh, that’s not that important.  She’ll figure that out, she says.